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On Love and the Internet

This morning, I was idly researching online the origins of the languages developed by J R R Tolkien, having just watched the first part of the film dramatization of his early work, The Hobbit, a Christmas gift from an old friend. I first read The Hobbit when I was sixteen and the following year went on to read The Lord of The Rings.

So immersed was I in the world of the Middle Earth, its heroes and villains, that I read through that Saturday, and through the night and on the Sunday morning I got into trouble with the nuns because it was my turn to awaken the snoozing residents of The Old Cottage, at my boarding school, Hengrave Hall, but in fact I let them slumber on, whilst I fought alongside Gandalf the White, spellbound, and so, we were all late for morning service.

Today, whilst exploring online, I moved from Tolkien himself, together with his extraordinary intellectual and literary achievements – to reading about C. S. Lewis. As a young child, I was always fascinated by the stories of Narnia, starting, of course, with The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I had always assumed that following the death of his wife, Joy, Lewis had converted to Catholicism but to the disappointment of his Catholic friend, Tolkien, and to my surprise, he become instead a confirmed Anglican until his death.

I don’t know why I should’ve been so surprised, perhaps because I imagine (as a lapsed Catholic) that the Anglican Church is a much diluted version of Catholicism, and Lewis comes across as a man of strong convictions? I was moved to discover that he died on the same day as the assassination of John F. Kennedy – as did Aldous Huxley – and so those the light of two great giants of literature was extinguished almost without comment as a post-script to the overarching media coverage of the Dallas murder on 23 November, 1963,

I had heard of Lewis’s work on belief, but not of his work The Four Loves, and so I read on.

At first, I felt comfortable with the terminology. Of course, I thought, I understand that love can be split into “types” ie the Greek concept of Eros (passionate or romantic/erotic love), Friendship (brotherly or fond love between friends, as in Philia in Greek, or even between an owner and a pet), natural Affection (familial love such as a mother for her daughters or Storge in Greek – this can also include love between exceptional friends), and finally, Charity (as in the Greek concept of Agape, considered the highest form of love being the love of God for wo-man, or vice-versa).

But what happens, I wonder, when terms overlap into one another, like watercolours? Or when the nature of love itself evolves within a relationship? So, for example, Charity or Agape is a form of selfless love, a love that requires sacrifice such as the love of Christ (post Greek concept) on the cross, or the love of a man for his family, his fellow men, or his country, for which he sacrifices his life, in the name of duty. So it is seen, always as a noble thing. But yet, sometimes, it seems, individuals feel a selfless love for an unworthy cause … a Nazi prepared to die for his Fuhrer, for example. Is this, then, still Charity?

As for natural Affection, or Storge – what of it? Is it what happens in marriage after the Eros bit has worn thin? Or vice-versa? Apparently, Storge lovers cannot always pinpoint the moment at which their natural affections suddenly metamorphosed into passionate love for one another. Similarly, those who start off by being passionately “in love” ie Eros, can find themselves transforming into a state of loving one another, that is Storge, without being “in love” any longer. From being lovers, they become best friends. Does this make it a greater love, or a lesser one? Isn’t the term “storgic lover” a contradiction in terms? The experts say that for them, passionate sexual intensity is less important that commitment to one another, or trust upheld by a rejection of infidelity. I wonder … wouldn’t that be like the hobbit Bilbo Baggins staying cosily in his armchair rather than pounding off down the track in search of Gandalf’s Company of Dwarves and adventure?

I stumble across a word I’ve never seen before. Limerence. Coined in 1979 by psychologist Dorothy Tennov to described the state of being “in love”, it reads more like a mental disorder than the enviable and yearned for state of being in love. Further defined in 2012 by Lynn Willmott as “an involuntary interpersonal state that involves intrusive, obsessive, and compulsive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are contingent on perceived emotional reciprocation from the object of interest” – I become increasingly alarmed.

All this time, have I been praying to attract a mental disorder? Negative pathology or a positively divine encounter?

No wonder my pathetic attempts at hunting it down via Internet dating sites have been so unsuccessful. How can a long list of likes and dislikes, shared or not shared by a stranger, become the basis for magic, the basis for a “true” love? Not puppy love, but the real thing.

And if, in the meantime, I discover that I’ve contracted limerence, the prognosis is not all good news. Apparently when people fall in love, or show symptoms of limerence, it is usually one-sided. It takes time to recover. Up to three years before the loving thoughts stop intruding in one’s life, and allow a return to focus on the really important stuff such as tax returns, what to have for Sunday lunch, or whether to buy new boots in the January Sales, according to the experts.

Physical consummation with the object of obsessive-compulsive passion is apparently one way to speed up recovery, but there’s always a risk that instead of seeing the clay feet of the adored, the love (or I should say “limerence”) deepens, and becomes terminal.

Starvation, or a complete lack of notice or communication by or with the loved one is another way to lessen the symptoms of limerence however, like a cancer, it is just as likely to recur at the accidental sight of the beloved, or a kind word in a Christmas card.

The final suggestion is “transference” of affection from one adored object to another. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t and when it doesn’t, the limerent victim then suffers a sort of love-based schizophrenia. It all sounds very unsatisfactory.

Rather than being seen as a negative, some thinkers pay homage to the act of falling in love as a catalyst to change for the better. The term New Relationship Energy, or NRE to the cognoscenti, suggests that at the beginning of significant romantic and/or sexual human relationships, there can be heightened excitement and even creativity. If reciprocated, it can grow to full force and illuminate every aspect of physical, intellectual and emotional life … before it fades over months to years.

Oh yes, it fades. Eros is a transient state of being, only able to endure in hearts and minds when it is tragically curtailed whilst still in full flow. Think of the lovers of literature and legend. Did Anthony and Cleopatra slip into bedroom slippers and grumble over the Horlicks? Did Romeo have a go at Juliet for not ironing his favourite cod-piece? Must it all end in tragedy? So it would seem.

Or else, in the words of T. S. Eliot, even great love is fated to die “not with a bang, but a whimper”?

Proceed with caution in the face of NRE, say the experts. Don’t allow the surge of bio-chemical energy experienced to warp judgement. Be aware that NRE can damage long-standing, valuable love relationships which, by comparison, may appear pedestrian and even boring.

This short bout of learning more about the nature of love might’ve been depressing had it not been for a 2008 talk* that I first watched some weeks ago. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist, explores the science of love without sacrificing the nature of romance. She says that love is a universal human drive, stronger than the sex drive, thirst, hunger or even the will to live. Having studied the human brain in those who love, those who have loved and lost, and finally, those who remain in love after many years together, she confirms that the part of the brain affected when “in love” is the same part of the brain that is affected in people suffering Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD.

And, just as it is dangerous to be “in love”, it is equally dangerous to suppress one’s feelings.

With millions of people taking anti-depressants to stave off the downside of Western living, with all its comforts yet emotional inadequacies, Fisher says the serotonin enhancers, or anti-depressants, blunt emotions, curb obsessive thinking and help with sleeplessness.

On the other hand, they also depress the production of the dopamine system in the brain, that part of the brain that roars into action when a person falls “in love.” And with the loss of love, comes the loss of Spring. Love brings, she says, “all the colours, sounds and tastes of spring. Pink petals, whizzing bugs, asparagus and strawberries. After months of gray and white and winter foods, these sensory experiences are novel, exciting. Novelty stimulates dopamine circuits in the brain, circuits that can bring optimism and elation.”

Who wants to live in the eternal winter of the Snow Queen of Narnia? Not C. S. Lewis, not J. R. R. Tolkien … and not me.

One love, four loves, who knows and who cares?

Bring on the madness, the whizz-bang and the strawberries, because I still dare to dream.

Words 1,629 COPYRIGHT SUZI CLARK 2016-01-10


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